Getting to the top doesn’t happen in isolation. Though we are all feeling the isolation right now, for fencers we know that it takes a community to create a champion. During our in-depth interview with fencing dynamo Valentina Vezzali, we dived deep into what it means to get to the top of the fencing world.
Valentina Vezzali is a champion’s champion. With six Olympic gold medals, one silver, and two bronze beginning in Atlanta in 1996, she is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished fencers in modern history. She was the first foilist ever to win individual gold at three consecutive Olympics, in 2000, 2004, and 2008. Beyond the Olympics, she holds sixteen gold medals at the World Fencing Championships and thirteen gold medals at the European Championships. Beyond fencing, she is a twice published author and served as a member of the Italian Parliament.
What comes from this interview is the importance of inclusion, of the possibilities when we pursue women’s empowerment. Vezzali is so special not just because of her skills on the strip, but also because of her vision for what fencing, and the world beyond fencing, can be if we commit to making change. A fundamental part of her story is her burning desire and her unbeatable willpower. She is driven to push her own limits, whether in fencing or in any area of her life. These are the qualities that you need to have to succeed. Don’t settle for the status quo, always strive to do better! It’s a theme that we see again and again in her words.
A special thank you to Riccardo Calvi for helping us with the translation to and from Italian.
Valentina Vezzali in Her Own Words
Irina – Hello, Valentina and Riccardo! It is so nice seeing you, what a big honor! How are you doing in such an unprecedented time?
Valentina – First of all, we need to be positive. It is a difficult period for everyone, not only for me and for athletes. It is also a difficult time because we have to keep the kids inside. Tell me how you are doing?
IR – for the last 2 months we have been in lockdown. Within a very short time we moved all of our training online.
VV – In Italy, all of our sport centers did the same you did in the United States. All physical activities went online, with athletes following the direction of their coaches. I have done a lot of calls with all the fencing clubs in Italy, talking to them about not giving up and to keep training.
IR – That’s fantastic! One of our missions is to keep everyone positive, to stay strong and keep going, to keep training.
VV – Sports has been my entire life. It is important to me. It was important to me before I was an athlete and now as the manager of the Italian Fencing Federation and of my sports team. My team is called Fiamme Oro (gold flames) and is the Police sports team. In Italy the majority of the athletes running sports like the olympic ones belongs to military teams (there is a protocol signed with the National Olympic Commitee) as these support them to train. I work to bring the positive message that sports should keep going. We need to believe in a better future
You are the only one to set your limits
Igor – Valentina, I’ve watched you for many years and I’m fascinated by the many aspects of your life and your fencing. Your courage to keep going as you were the most veteran fencer on the circuit, even as so many young and talented fencers were coming up.
VV – In my career, ever since I was a child, I have always put a challenging objective out there for me to reach. One of my greatest beliefs in life is that we must be the ones to decide what to do in our careers, in our lives. Without others telling us where to stop and when to stop. As long as you have that fire inside yourself, you can go ahead. There is nothing that can stop you. When you have decided for yourself, you have the power to choose when you give up. This applies also when you decide to quit your career as an athlete or to “Hang the foil on the nail” like we use to say in Italy. Don’t let others tell you what to do.
IG – Valentina, what a great motivational speech!
VV – My belief in my life is that with every beginning there is an end, and that with every ending there is a new beginning. I was fortunate to be born in a small town in the center of Italy called Jesi. It suddenly became a center of fencing not only in Italy, but worldwide.
The town that Ezio Triccoli built
VV – This was all thanks to coach Ezio Triccoli. He was an Italian soldier during World War II and was a prisoner in a British war camp in South Africa. In that camp they did sports, and Ezio Tricoli learned fencing there. He learned to fence using a wooden stick. Then when he returned to Italy in 1947, he founded a fencing school in Jesi. He had the first Italian champion in 1957. From 1976 on, an athlete from Jesi attends the Olympic Games. From 1984 on, an athlete from Jesi won at every Olympic Games. We have Olympic Champions such as Giovanna Trillini, Valentina Vezzali, Elisa Di Francisca, and Stefano Cerioni. When you realize that Jesi is a town of only forty thousand people, this is truly a record!
One of the primary skills that coach Triccoli had is to work with every athlete following his/her own character and drive. He was convinced that with the right technique and leveraging their own personal characteristics, they can win a title. The athlete who has huge talent will reach to win at the Olympic Games, but even those athletes who have a strong ability but don’t have the greatest talent can still make win other titles. Maybe not Olympic titles, which are the biggest of all, but other great titles. These were the main characteristics of Mr. Tricoli, who was able to shape the athletes according to their specific characteristics.
Focus on timing and pulse
IG – You said that your coach found unique characteristics in his fencers and developed them. You had a very unique and charismatic style of fencing. Did your coach develop it with you, or it is you who developed this style yourself?
VV – Ezio Triccoli worked a lot on technique and distance with me. First with very short distances, and then with time increasing the distances more and more. During this training, he would ask me to count the steps and to pay a lot of attention to timing and pulse. The right steps, at the right timing with the right pulse. It was very important for us to focus our attention on these aspects of technique, counting every action and finding the right timing and distance. This was the major focus of coach Triccoli, and I worked with him a lot on these elements.
After him, I worked with coach Giulio Tomassini, who also coached Stefano Cerioni, Arianna Errigo, Elisa Di Francisca, Margherita Granbassi, and Andrea Baldini. Giulio came to Jesi when he was eighteen years old and learned from Triccoli. Giulio is a bit different. I worked with Triccoli until I was fifteen years old and it was mostly on my technique. With Giulio, I worked both on technique and on tactical fencing.
He taught me to be unpredictable to my opponent. They thought I was doing a specific thing at a specific time, while in truth I was preparing something else. I was unpredictable for them.
A very important part of my fencing growth was the presence of Giovanna Trillini, who is four years older than me. I was a child when I was training with her, always losing 5:0, 5:0, 5:0. Every time I went home at night, I was totally desperate because I was always losing to her. My father always said to me “Don’t worry, because tomorrow you will get closer to her by one point. Maybe a day after that you will get another point closer to her. Until one day you will beat her.” Indeed that happened.
IG – Did she become your friend, or was she always an opponent?
VV – She is a great friend of mine. She is coach of the Italian Federation. She is also the coach of Alice Volpi. For me, she will always be a reference point. I believe that if I am what I am and had my career, it is also because of Giovanna Trillini. She will always be a friend for me, and there is a great respect between us. I have a great respect for her, and I believe that she has a great respect for me.
IG – I think there is no person in the world that does not have a great respect for you! If I asked you for one quality that makes Valentina Vezzali be Valentina Vezzali, what would it be?
VV – I am very determined and I am very stubborn! If I have an objective, I’ll do whatever is needed to reach that objective. I used to train for six to seven hours per day. All the way to the last day of my career, I was the first to get into the venue and the last to leave it. I believe it was a reference point for many fencers in Italy, and in the world. I believe I did everything I could to help fencing to grow in Italy.
Last match in Rio
IG – Valentina, the last day of your fencing career was the Team World Championship in Rio, right?
VV – This was a very special day for me. Before the competition there was a party for me. It was a very beautiful day. All of the world fencers in the venue stood up and jumped in line together with me. Usually the day before competitions with my national team (Errigo, Di Francisca, Batini) we had a tradition. The night before, we would practice our special Italian team greeting. We would stay all together and sing this song to be sung the day after in front of our opponents.
I had the opportunity to be in many dream teams of fencing in Italy, but when Arianna Errigo and Elisa Di Francisca joined the team, they changed the rule game (😊) and in addition to our songs we started to dance. It was a challenge for me! The last song and dance we prepared for the finals in that championship really touched my heart because it was a sort of thanking for my career, for what I did. It was the greatest way to say goodbye. We didn’t win. We got Silver. For me it was still a victory because for me it was all I could do for my sport. This was how I completed my journey as an athlete. There was another journey in front of me, and I was certain that my teammates would be able to carry on and get great results without me.
IG – They definitely did! I watched this match in real time, and the commentators were talking about you all the time. It had the feeling of a big farewell party.
VV – I must admit that it is difficult to fence when you know that this is absolutely your last competition.
IG – When did you decide that this would be your last match?
VV – After the London Olympic Games when I got the Bronze medal in an all-Italian podium, it was a challenging competition for me. I wanted to have a second child. I started to think about the World Championships in Rio being my last competition.
A nation’s call
Then in December of 2012, I received a call from a political party. They asked me to put my experience to work for the good of the nation and I answered “yes”, so I started this political journey while I was still an athlete.
I strongly believe in a sense of ownership and a sense of belonging to Italy. Italy gave me a lot and I couldn’t refuse, because I was feeling this strong call from my country. As I said before, I am determined and I am stubborn. I continued to do fencing and I became a politician at the same time.
In all of this, there came another great challenge. My coach, Giulio Tomassini, started training in France. I could only train with him at national fencing camps. It was a very difficult period for me, because I was living in Rome far from my family in Jesi (Ancona about 300km from Rome). I was training and also I was engaged in political activities that I constantly needed follow or events to attend. My children were very young. Pietro, the first one, was not even ten and Andrea, the second, was tiny. But I didn’t give up!
In this difficult period, I still won three World Championships in the team event and an individual Bronze medal in the Fencing World Championship in 2013 in Kazan. Everything that I did, I would do it again! I believe that in our life we should push for our goals. We should always go ahead and have be aware that we can win or lose but the important is that we’ve tried with all of our strength. Of course, we all compete to win but sometimes it does not go as we wish and we need to accept it, with the awareness that we’ve done all needed to succeed.
It was a pity that the Olympic Games in Rio didn’t include the women’s foil team event. I was solidly in the Italian National Team. At that time Arianna Errigo and Elisa Di Francesca were two very strong, young, and unmarried fencers who were great competitors for the Olympics. If the foil team event would have been part of the Games, I am sure I would have participated in my sixth Olympics.
IG – The more you fenced and got results, the more people knew you. They learned your techniques and studied your videos. Did you feel more pressure because of that?
VV – I always concentrated on my own limits and wanted to go beyond my limits. For me, the great role and the fundamental role was coach Tomassini. When I trained with him, he pushed me to do the most challenging actions in the most natural way. Thanks to his training in a match I was able to run difficult actions in a very natural way. Because of that, when I was competing I was actually enjoying it.
One of my favourite anecdotes that I remember is when in a world championship match I was fencing against an opponent and suddenly I scored. Then my opponent changed her actions but I scored again. Again she changed and I still score. So she looked at her coach with a distressed facial expressions as a meaning of “What should I do?” And her coach, opening his arms saying “I don’t know what you can do, it is like she is reading your mind!”.
The great thing in my coach was that we knew that everybody would be studying the details of my fencing. They would be aware of everything that was happening around me. He always prepared me to be unpredictable and natural in the most difficult situations. When I talked with the other italian athletes he trained, they all said the same: his main quality was making you do the most difficult things in a most natural way. The lessons with him were just very enjoyable.
Valentina Vezzali’s favorites
IG – Who is the most interesting fencer for you now?
VZ – Elisa Di Francisca. She has a great technique and timing. She is different from me because she is very tall, and she uses her height very beautifully. When you fence against her, you don’t think she will be able to touch you and yet she does. Arianna Errigo also has great timing. She is very unpredictable, her attacks are great. Alice Volpi is good too. Inna Deriglazova is also a great fencer, and for me right now she is probably the best in the world. She is fencing very quietly and efficiently.
I have to say that Lee Keifer is very good too even though she did not get good results in the Olympic Games or in the World Championships. I think that she just needs to believe more that she can do it and she will be able to do it.
Ysaora Thibus is interesting and is a good fencer too. She works with Cerioni, who for me is a great coach and also coaches Imboden, who himself is very good.
So, my women are – Di Francesca, Errigo, Deriglazova, Volpi, Thibus and Keifer. Men – the Italian fencers of course, Garozzo, Foconi, Cassara, Avola, Tomaso Marini, who is a junior, and the Men’s Foil fencers from the USA. Those are the best.
IG – For our readers to hear that you praise american fencers so high is a great thing. It is going to promote the blog! (laughing)
VV – But it is true! You can look at the results. When I was young in the end of the 1990’s, the United States started to show results for the first time. I remember Iris Zimmerman. Now in every weapon, the United States fencing is great. Especially sabre. I think Mariel Zagunis is an idol in the USA. She won at many Olympic Games and did a lot for fencing in the world, not only for the United States.
IG – I wrote a book about that, how American fencing changed a lot in the last 20 years. It is very fascinating to hear your perspective on American fencing now!
IR – Can you tell us more about your political career?
VV – For me, being a politician means that you serve your country. It is a means to give something back to your country. It’s not just another job. I am no longer a politician today, but in a way I continue to participate in politics differently as the manager of the Italian Fencing Federation. I work to build the culture of sports in Italy. In the United States, the culture of sport is much higher than it is in Italy. For example, in Italy when you are young and you want to do sports at competition level you can be penalized for that because teachers believe it might interfere with your education. That’s wrong! I want to integrate sports into education, similarly to the brilliant way that the United States does it.
IG – In the United States, sports in school and in the universities is good, but professional sports is only for things like basketball, football, and hockey. In amateur sports like fencing, there isn’t support like what Italy has. The government here doesn’t give military jobs as a means to sponsor professional athletes.
VV – When I was a member of parliament, I struggled to get sport in schools from the age of six. At that age today, there is no sport in Italian schools. In Italy, there is an inequality among sports, because it costs a lot of money. If you don’t have this money, you can’t do sports as a young kid. In the schools, our sports programs are not that good. Outside of schools, sports is run on a volunteer basis.
One thing that works here is that our government, together with the National Olympic Committee, funds sport programs (mainly olympic disciplines) through the military groups so that they can develop. So if you practice an olympic discipline and you are an athlete of national interest, you’ve chance to get into a military group to get a salary and pursue your career. Unless you fund it on your own or find alternatives.
IG – Without that support, you probably wouldn’t have been able to compete to the age of forty!
VV – Yes, without the support of Fiamme Oro, I probably would not have been able to continue that long indeed! Again, thanks to the military support, we can do sports. But on the other side, we cannot follow our education and do sports. We are penalized in the area of academics. In the USA, if you are a high level athlete, you can go to college and train and study. In Italy, if you are a high level athlete then you must take a decision between athletics and academics. You cannot do both. Or at least is truly difficult. This is a very important difference between Italy and the United States.
One of the exceptions is Daniele Garozzo (Individual Foil Gold Medalist at the Rio Olympics), who is studying to become a medical doctor. In Italy, we call this a “white fly” (as a meaning of something very rare). He is very powerful and very talented, but even with that he is far from the completion of his studies on time.
Nowadays, I have to admit, that it is a bit easier since there are online courses, online coaching and tutoring. In my time we had nothing of this, it was the traditional way of studying, mostly with lessons that you had to attend phisically in person. Nevertheless, even today when you train for six or seven hours a day, it is difficult to combine high level training and academic studies in Italy being on time with exams, despite these online possibilities.
BREAKING NEWS: Valentina Vezzali for FIS President!
IG – So for a professional athlete in Italy, the natural career path after retirement is to continue in sports?
VV – Yes. Most often when you quit your career, you continue as a sport coach or a manager. For me, this was this way too. I will give you some breaking news for your blog. I am also a “white fly” as the only woman in my fencing federation in a leadership position. My objective is to become the first woman to become president of the Italian Fencing Federation. In Italy, it is very difficult as the Fencing Federation is dominated by men. But I love challenges! (laughing)
IG – In our blog we will write in big letters “Breaking News – VALENTINA VEZZALI IS RUNNING TO BECOME THE ITALIAN FENCING FEDERATION PRESIDENT!”
VV – (laughing) No, you cannot write this! I am superstitious! But you know what? You actually can write this, it’s ok. Since I was a little girl, I said to my father every night, “I want to win an Olympic Gold medal.” Despite superstition, I won! (laughing)
IG – (laughing too) You know, there are one billion kids in the world who say they want to win at the Olympic Games, but only one wins.
VV – (continues to laugh) You need to say this every day! When I started competing as a child, when I won 5:1 instead of 5:0, I would start crying because the opponent succeeded in scoring a touch against me. I remember in one of the youth fencing competitions, I arrived in third place. When they took a picture of the podium, I was crying. After several years I met the girl who took the Gold she told me “You ruined my picture because you were the only one who was crying on the podium!” This was always part of my character.
IR – You are such a strong female role model. For your country and far beyond. Can you describe how your work in politics and beyond advanced women’s rights and equality? Did you succeed in influencing the way you wanted to move this agenda, which you said is very important to you?
VV – First of all, let me say I am against “pink” quotas (as a way to say that in this or that position there should not be a fixed number of women). I am against this fixed numbers. It should be normal that women are part of the political life, of leadership teams, and at the top of companies. I work a lot to promote women’s presence and gender equality, in politics and also in the high levels of sports management. Things are moving slightly in Italy in this area. I believe in the power of women. We have evidence that when women do reach the top level of companies or the top leadership roles, things really do get better.
IG – Why is that? What do women do differently? Well, in our company the boss is a woman. (laughing)
VV – Since the Olympics in Beijing, we have seen the difference between medals for men and women. We have also seen this in industry. The main differences between men and women are that women are multitaskers, they are able to manage time in a day in a much better way than men with family and work. In Italy they say “behind every successful man there is a woman”.
IG – Amen to that!
IR – Valentina, thank you so much for such an interesting discussion and for the opportunity to get to know you as a person. I hope that this interview will help many people to keep positive and optimistic and to get more motivation and understanding. As we always finish our blog, can you please say a few final words to the fencing community around the world?
VZ – I just want to give my best wishes to all the athletes in the world that dream of going to the Olympic Games. I hope that the Olympics will happen next year in Tokyo. I want to give my warm regards to cadets and juniors that dream of getting to the big competition, but especially I want to send a message to the youngest fencers. To the little ones that are likely to enter this fantastic world of fencing.
Fencing is a sport of goals and values because it really teaches you values in life, such as respect for the opponent and for the rules, determination and sacrifices. I hope that the world will restart soon, and I hope that soon we will return to our normal. It is so great to shake hands and to hug each other, and I believe we will return back to that. I am optimistic!
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, because Valentina was so generous with her time and detail. It is published with her approval on this blog.
AFM cannot thank Valentina Vezzali enough for her insight and her forward thinking. As a champion and a powerful woman, we can all be inspired by her. Thank you so much Valentina!
All photos are courtesy of Augusto Bizzi, FIE